I’ll focus this post on increasing tension through dialogue. Tension is the difference between what the character wants and what the character has. It stirs emotions of concern, worry, and angst in the reader. It’s tension that keeps readers turning the page because they want to know how the character will reconcile the difference.
There are two types of dialogue: internal and verbal. Let’s start with examining internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue is the inner voice of the character. It’s what the character tells themselves as they interpret events around them and make plans to address a conflict, obstacle, event, or enemy.
How do you add tension with inner dialogue?
- Make an observation the character can’t respond to directly (cultural norms, circumstances prohibit, would tip hand to enemy)
- Have conflicting inner dialogue and verbal dialogue
- Add a dilemma
Let’s take a look at a few examples. The first is an excerpt from Branded, a short story in the anthology Star Crossed.
“The stevedores are threatening to join the industrial action of the factory labourers. If we don’t contain this situation…” The Ulian’s face blanched from dark blue to light blue.
Procedures. Even this armpit of the galaxy had procedures. “Why wasn’t this in my briefing?”
What do you think Sergeant Major Emerlynne Turner thinks of the place? If you said ‘not much’, you’re right. Why? Because her inner dialogue, ‘armpit of the galaxy’, clearly shows her negative attitude towards the space station.
In this scene, Emerlynne needs to speak with the Chief Administrator but can’t. What are her thoughts? Procedures and how none of the reports she’s received indicated labour disputes or problems on the station.
Here’s an excerpt from the male lead in Branded. His name is Dallin.
“New toy?” Johansson tilted her head towards Peach.
Playmate. Partner. Perfection.
He ignored Johansson’s comment. “What have you heard of Sauer?” There. Direct. No sense in dancing around a subject when the Archimedes was a tinderbox, and someone was running around with high explosives.
When Dallin thinks of Emerlynne, he thinks of her as Peach. This goes to characterisation. The next line is his thoughts which add sexual tension— Playmate. Partner. Perfection.
He also doesn’t respond to the comment “New toy?” because it would tip his hand towards his feelings for Emmerlyne (Peach).
The next bit of dialogue focuses on his mission, finding Chief Administrator Sauer, who is held captive. His thoughts bring you the conflict, the problems on the station and the dangers of it exploding.
There is tension between inner dialogue and speech between his attraction towards Peach (sexual tension) and his mission (life and death). The conflict pits a visceral response (romantic interest) against logic (following the mission).
In my short story Frontier Love in Heartened by Crime, Andrée-Anne must save her brother. Here's an excerpt:
Did she have any other choice? Her brother was set to hang in two weeks. “What do you propose?”
What blade did this man have capable of cutting a hangman’s noose?
“We need to get at the heart of the matter.” He took up his seat across from her and tapped the stack of files.
A lawyer she’s just met offers to help free her brother—one last, desperate hope. She takes Christopher up on his offer to help, but there's also a sense that she doesn't trust him.
Let’s do one more example from Indebted to You, a novella in Heartened by Crime. The main character is an Ontario Provincial Police officer.
Parsons straightened. “Am I a suspect?”
Yes. Yes, Parsons was a suspect. Spouses were always suspects until evidence proved otherwise. “We need to establish a timeline of where everyone was.”
In the inner dialogue, you see, the MC Leigh’s thoughts as she assesses a suspect. There’s also a contrast between her thoughts and her words. Most people don’t speak their minds which creates a conflict between inner and verbal dialogue.
In Chemical Love, a novella in Heartened by Crime, Ine is faced with a dilemma.
“It’s been two hours. We need to get out.” Sweat beaded at the base of her hairline.
“There’s not been a ‘we’ for years.”
True. But the dagger still cut deep. She pressed her eyes closed to collect her thoughts, then opened them again to face him head-on.
He shook his almost clean-shaven head. With his current haircut, he’d be a perfect recruit for the army or the navy, perhaps the police service. “Not the way I see it.”
A silence. One that was filled with the buzzing of computers and the whirring of computer fans. The room's ventilation rattled on, sucking the stale out and pushing in a cool breeze.
“You can’t transfer all of Harada Conglomerate’s darkest secrets.” She refused to look over her shoulder to the security cameras, but the urge was there.
“I can try.”
“You’ll fail. There isn’t enough room on that flash drive. They’ll be a security guard change in an hour, and they’ll ask questions. Questions we can’t answer. At the same time, the senior vice presidents will enter the building, they’ll settle into their desks, go over their messages, see notices of consultants working overnight. Questions will be asked, and we’ll still be in this room, transferring data.”
She is facing a ticking clock to get out of a computer room, and her thoughts yank her to a past relationship she had with Eichi. The dilemma is to leave him in the computer room or help him steal the files. Another layer of dilemma is to return to their relationship or leave him behind.
Now, let’s turn our attention to verbal dialogue. How do we add tension when characters are speaking? We can use the same techniques.
Here’s an excerpt from my short story, A Taste of Cognac, in the anthology In the Red Room.
“And expensive,” he said. “I wonder where he got the money.”
“A gift perhaps?”
“Who likes Frédéric that much?”
Honoré skirts around an issue that his friend isn’t liked all that much. It creates tension between what is known (observed) by both characters and what is said. They are both aristocrats, and it wouldn’t be polite to state the obvious.
Here’s an excerpt from the Captain and Traitor, which A Muse Bouche Review published.
“Stick to the mission,” Dulcie said. “The prince. We’re here for the information. We have to slow Indefatigable.” She ignored the inner voice that screamed her love was in danger.
Her commands contradict her thoughts. She focuses on the mission at the expense of her love, and that creates a dilemma.
For a bonus, when it comes to verbal dialogue, you can always add subtext. Here’s an example from Let it Rain.
“They’ll grow.” She planted another tender kiss against his neck and rested her head against his chest.
Rain crashed in horizontal sheets against his farm, washing away his sweat, his work, his profit.
His eyes narrowed on a flooded area of his field. “Not if this continues.”
“It’s not the only seed you’ve planted that’s taken.” She smiled against his chest. Her fingers pressed into his shoulders.
“The corn didn’t come in as well—” He chewed off his words. He blinked. Then blinked again. A third time for good measure then peeled away from Brielle.
Brielle tells him something important without using the words, and she lets her husband and the reader figure it out. When done right, this process of discovery can be gratifying for the reader.
How do you add tension to your dialogue? You’re encouraged to reach out to me on Twitter to discuss @reneegendron
I want to thank @LouSchlesinger for the topic suggestion for this post.